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None of the above

By Alan Tapper - posted Monday, 18 October 2010

Political reform has become a live issue, and not before time. Australia was a pioneer of democracy - we were among the first to introduce a full adult franchise - but we long ago gave up on improving our democratic system. Now, however, there is talk of introducing primaries, and of making optional preferential voting the norm.

I’m suggesting another change in the way we vote. We should include a “None of the above” option on all ballot papers. A tick in that box would express a valid vote, a NOTA vote. For upper house voting it could be included above the line.

The NOTA votes would be counted in the final tally, but they would not change the result. Victory would be decided just as at present. The seat would be won by winning 50 per cent of all non-NOTA votes.


This is done in Greece, Spain, France, Ukraine, and Columbia, and was done in Russia until recently. While these are not encouraging examples, there’s nothing very novel in the idea. Let’s consider its merits.

At present informal voting combines two kinds of voter: the bungler, who intends to make a valid vote but who messes up the attempt; and the protest voter, who rejects all the candidates and parties on offer.

Bungled voting will always be with us, and not much can be done about it. Protest voters are a very different category. They have a point to make, but at present can only make their point to their own satisfaction. The system has no means of registering their protest, so their votes count as noise and not as signal.

There are also two kinds of formal voter who might as well be informal: those who have no interest in politics and might as well vote at random; and those who are happy - or equally unhappy - with either of the main contenders, who are choosing between them at random. These two voter types are currently expected to make a choice, when they have no good grounds for choosing.

The NOTA option would separate the two current kinds of informal voter. The bungled vote would now fall into a “spoiled” category. The NOTA vote might attract the uninterested voter, as a way of expressing indifference. It might attract the undecided voter, as an expression of feeling unable to decide. But mostly it would appeal to the person wishing to register a protest.

The overall NOTA tally will signify satisfaction with the candidates and parties if the figure is small, disaffection if it is large. It will also add some clarity if it redirects the random voting of the uninterested voter. It would thereby add to the information conveyed by the election process. All this would become the subject of interpretation, by the parties, the pundits and the public.


At present protest voters have to spoil their ballot, and uninterested or undecided voters have to make choices they don’t want to make. There is also a moral point here. In a democracy, the people’s voice should be heard, even if it is a voice of protest. Consent should not be forced by constraining the range of choice. One can express dissent by spoiling one’s ballot paper, but it is regrettable to have to do it that way.

Opponents of compulsory voting might object that, if we were to abolish compulsion, the protest voter can protest simply by staying at home. In reply I offer three very cursory points:

  1. the best case for compulsory voting is that all citizens must indicate where they stand - otherwise, we can’t rationally plan how much to invest in political activity. If my beliefs and values are widely shared, I don’t need to worry. But if we are deeply divided, I need to know, so I can know how to act;
  2. NOTA voting is complementary to compulsory voting. The principle is that you must vote, but you don’t have to accept whatever is being offered;
  3. introduction of the NOTA option is simple and achievable, whereas abolition of compulsory voting would be difficult to achieve.
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About the Author

Dr Alan Tapper is a Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Ethics and Philosophy, Curtin University, Perth.

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